Kirtland Central grad from Sheep Springs recounts work on NASA's Mars rover Perseverance

Lazarus Todea helped assemble aeroshell used in Mars 2020 mission

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Lazarus Todea works for Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado.
  • He graduated from Kirtland Central High School in 2014.
  • Todea helped assemble the aeroshell that protected the Mars rover during its descent to the Martian surface.

FARMINGTON — The funny thing is, when he was growing up in Sheep Springs on the Navajo Nation in southwest San Juan County, Lazarus Todea wasn't the space geek in his family.

That distinction went to his older sister Xandria, he said, who could never seem to get enough of the activities of NASA and other aerospace-related subjects. But while his sister later wound up pursuing a degree in architecture, Todea — a 2014 Kirtland Central High School graduate who spent kindergarten through 11th grade studying at Newcomb schools — became the sibling who carved out a career in the space exploration field.

Todea now works for Lockheed Martin space systems in Littleton, Colorado, and even had a hand — you might even say a direct hand — in NASA's latest triumph, the successful landing of the rover Perseverance on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18. Todea was part of the team that fabricated and put together the fiber composite panels that served as the aeroshell that held the rover.

Lazarus Todea, back row, second from left, poses for a photo with other members of his Lockheed Martin team who helped build an aeroshell for the Mars rover Perseverance.

"I was really honored to be a part of this team and part of history, especially coming from where I'm from," Todea said during a phone interview on April 1.

Todea, a member of the Navajo Nation who also is of Sioux ancestry, described his work as "100% hands on" when it came to assembling the aeroshell, consisting of a back shell and a heat shield, though he downplayed the glamour of his work.

From USA Today:NASA’s mission to Mars looks for signs of life

"Oh, it's very tedious," he said with a laugh, explaining that the work is so precise, some elements of the assemblage are measured to hundreds of thousandths of an inch.

The Mars 2020 mission launched July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and began its months long mission to the red planet to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and soil for possible return to earth. But when it arrived there in February, the most difficult part of the mission was only beginning — the insertion into the Martian atmosphere and the execution of a safe landing at the Jezero Crater on the planet's surface.

This image was captured while NASA’s Perseverance rover drove on Mars for the first time on March 4, 2021. Sheep Springs native Lazarus Todea helped assemble the aeroshell that protected the rover on its descent through the Martian atmosphere.

That segment of any Mars mission is commonly referred to as "seven minutes of terror" because those maneuvers must be performed autonomously by the spacecraft without the assistance of Mission Control and often have ended in failure. Todea, who worked on the Mars 2020 mission for two and a half years, said he and the members of his team watched the coverage of the descent carefully, hoping for the best.

From USA Today:Mars rover endured 'seven minutes of terror' for successful landing

"Yeah, I was pretty nervous, mostly when the heat shield gets released during the descent into the Martian atmosphere," he said. "There were a couple of things we were worried about, but pretty much everything was successful. I was really surprised at how far we've come with the Mars missions."

His anxiety aside, Todea said he was confident the descent and landing would conclude as planned, especially since his team was working from a design that had been modified only slightly from the design for previous aeroshells that had been used on successful Mars missions.

Sheep Springs native Lazarus Todea now works for defense contractor Lockheed Martin, helping construct and assemble NASA spacecraft.

From aircraft to NASA rockets

If there is a direct career path to the kind of job Todea holds, the Sheep Springs native didn't take it. He said his interests initially applied to a subject much closer to home, prompting him to enroll in aviation school at Redstone College in Broomfield, Colorado, after he graduated from KC. He earned an associate degree in occupational study with an A&P license — a certification for aviation maintenance technicians — and began his career in that field.

But it wasn't long after that he joined a couple of his college instructors at defense contractor Lockheed Martin and soon found himself working on all sorts of big-ticket items, including fleet ballistic missiles, the weapons systems found aboard some U.S. Navy submarines.

Todea said that while he never envisioned himself working on spacecraft, he had always been fascinated by rockets. So when the chance to move to that field from aviation, he didn't let it pass him by.

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Todea described his work on Mars 2020 as the highlight of his career and noted his involvement in the mission is not done. He also worked on the protective shield for the helicopter-like drone Ingenuity that soon will be deployed during the heart of the mission. The aircraft is designed to ascend from the Martian surface, its cameras capturing never-before-seen perspectives of the planet and directing the progress of Perseverance — if it works properly in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Lazarus Todea, center, and other members of his team at Lockheed Martin examine the heat shield they helped assemble for the Mars rover Perseverance.

According to NASA, Ingenuity is scheduled to conduct its first test flight no earlier than April 11. Additional flights are scheduled to take place over the ensuing 30 days.

"This mission is different because they've never had a helicopter," he said. " … Having that be able to fly up and direct the rover is a game changer."

Even as the Mars 2020 mission continues, Todea and his teammates already have turned their attention to other endeavors. They now are working on NASA's Orion spacecraft, which is designed to return humans to the moon, and possibly beyond, in the years ahead. Todea said many of the parts that will be used in the crew modules and the heat shield are being built in his facility.

That project, along with the various defense contracts held by Lockheed Martin, are certain to keep Todea busy for years to come. He believes he has found a home at Lockheed Martin, explaining that he plans to return to school soon on the company's dime and obtain a degree in business management.

He acknowledged that most people respond with enthusiasm when he tells them what he does — "Not a lot of people can say they do what I do," he said — but he also knows it's not the kind of work at which everyone excels.

"It takes a lot of patience and (a willingness to work) a lot of overtime," he said. "It gets pretty stressful during test dates and launches. It can get overwhelming at times. But it's pretty cool to be working on this."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.